An Interview with Stéphane Elbaz

Stéphane Elbaz is graphic and type designer working in New York and Paris. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo, recently published by Typofonderie. He is the first typeface designer from outside the foundry to be published by Typofonderie.

the DECK

How do you define yourself?

I am a designer. I intend to solve problems with aesthetic solutions, but at the same time develop a personal expression. It’s this gap that I find interesting.

My taste for letters appeared really early in my life, during my teenage years. At that time it wasn’t properly an interest in type, but certainly a taste for letters as plastic shapes. Going to the Arts Décoratifs school in Paris led me to discover classic typography. How could one not to be nostalgic when contemplating those school years? It’s very important for me because of how much I learned during these years. Classes with Rudi Meyer and Jean François Porchez gave me the context and the latitude to look at the subject with a more experimental way of thinking.

It was during the type design courses lead by Jean François Porchez that I was involved in the creation of the Caffeine and Cooker Black typefaces. This was clearly an important starting point for me; I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to involve myself in rigorous typographic projects without this first step. Thus letters for me became the dominant element of my graphic design. Type design is a discipline that requires a taste for abstraction plus a systematic mind — two things that fit well with my professional mindset.

You do both web design and type design, which is pretty rare. How does this affect how you work?

Concerning my web design skills, it’s a question I should ask of my colleagues. I don’t know if working with headlines devoid of kerning, or the inability to set a nicely ragged left paragraph is more difficult for me to live with than it is for others. I do, however, have good reasons to be optimistic. Things are evolving more quickly and always improving. The future will bring with it more and more screens and resolutions, and it is important that the typographic quality on these devices improves accordingly.

I think what has occurred on the Internet for some years is a perfect illustration of the importance of typography in graphic design. The capacity to use a large font palette, in comparison to the three or four standards that were used for dynamic texts, changes everything, and permits designers to express different identities.

Beyond the technical constraints of various screens, I don’t think there is any fundamental difference between the content presented on a screen or on paper — in much the same way as I don’t think that twitter or text messages radically changes our language. After all, it’s the graphic designer that has to choose the typefaces appropriate to the subject, and deal with technical constraints with a broader focus than just the screen or the piece of paper.

Why did you leave France to live and work in New York? From there, what can you say about type design in the United States and in France?

I like the charm of tiny cities. Seriously though, the United States is a big country and therefore has a great diversity of expression. There is certainly a tone in American graphic design that is quite different; the references are not exactly the same as in France. It seems, for instance, that the idea of tradition and the images associated with it are not the same in Paris and New York. The shapes and the imaginative world of tradition are an important foundation upon which type designers work, thus there are going to be differences in the type aesthetic.

What is the genesis of your typeface, Geneo?

Geneo was a personal project that I began without thinking of a context or a specific use. I was attracted to slab serifs and began drawing a really thin weight, a little like a typewriter character, but with some kind of Renaissance spirit. I think that I was trying to find an anachronistic mix that actually worked. I was also fond of the brush-made flourish shapes of the Art Nouveau period, and I was particularly inspired by them. All of these elements combined could feel a bit heavy, but my idea was to make a contemporary character where the shapes had to be synthetic while at the same time retaining some flesh, some of the organic.

Geneo won the TDC prize back in 2009, and today it is distributed by Typofonderie, although it’s not exactly the same typeface. Its original identity remains intact, but it had to evolve to conform with the foundry’s standards. This meant a lot of work, but I benefitted from the guidance and exceptional eye of Jean François Porchez. We worked together on both the design of each particular glyph’s details as well as the weight scale of the entire family. Time was also spent designing dingbats and alternative glyphs.

I believe that this new typeface family permits a great diversity of uses. The lighter weights used in headlines can convey both a delicatessen or a piece of literature. The intermediate weights can be used to set body text in an academic journal or in the logo of a new social network. We imagine the heavier weights being used on posters or in editorial design. The family as a whole can also be used in works needing a complex typographic hierarchy. Also, I think that in the context of a rational and minimal text layout, Geneo can add a connotative dimension, a level of contrast. For me, an even more exciting prospect is to see my typeface appear in ways that I couldn’t have envisaged. It’s from other graphic designers’ creations that I am waiting to see new and interesting interpretations.

Can you share something about the new typefaces you are working on?

I have a few things in progress, which I think is often the case with type designers; having several typeface ideas in the back of their minds. What determines if a typeface will one day be completed and released or not is the relevancy of its shapes and its identity. Some others will never be finished because they are shaky in their concept or just not original. I currently have a sans-serif project that I would like to finish. Unfortunately, it’s a category that already appears saturated and therefore is particularly challenging, but nonetheless stimulating.

Interview by Jérémy Landes-Nones.
Graphic and type designer Stephane Elbaz holds degrees in Visual Communication (2003) and Interactive Research (2004) from the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs. In 2009 he was awarded the Certificate of Excellence in Type Design from the Type Directors Club of New York for his type family Geneo (published by Typofonderie). He works in New York and Paris.